The room at Tampa's Ferguson Law Center was packed local politicos for one of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club's sporadic meetings to size up one of the region's most talked-about people: Tampa By Lightning owner Jeff Vinik .
Vinik has been in the spotlight lately for his team, which made it to the Stanley Cup Final earlier this year, as well as for spearheading a billion-dollar, 40-acre development city leaders hope will revitalize a stretch of downtown Tampa's riverfront.
While some audience members asked him about his team, most people were interested in how the as-yet-unnamed billion-dollar development would shake out in terms of transportation (the Tampa Bay Express lanes were big) and prosperity for low-income minorities.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democratic candidate for county clerk, introduced him.
“I will tell you that Mr. Vinik is unlike any individual or business person I've ever met in this capacity," Beckner said of the Boston native. "He has not only come to our community to build a worldwide hockey franchise here, but he has come here to truly build a character and contribute to our community.”
On hockey, he was mum when asked about whether or not the team is renewing its contract with star player Steve Stamkos.
In talking about his mega-development, which will include USF's medical school as well as homes and businesses, he assured the crowd the project would be tailored to Tampa's needs as well as its character.
“If we build something that looks like Miami, looks like Boston, works in Austin, Texas, et cetera, if we do all of that, then we would fail in our mission here. This is about Tampa, for Tampa, et cetera,” he said. “Those buildings are buildings. They're nothing. It's the placemaking that matters. It's the way the streets are designed. It's the two-way traffic. It's the parallel parking to protect pedestrians. It's the dog park. The water features the kids can play on.”
Last December, amid much fanfare, Vinik announced the project, aimed at enlivening Tampa's lethargic Channelside area. Earlier this summer, Port Tampa Bay followed suit with plans for a similarly sweeping mixed-use development, including two skyscrapers that would be the tallest on the gulf coast, adjacent the Vinik land. One attendee asked Vinik the difference between his plan and that for the port, the latter of which the attendee called "pie in the sky."
“I'm not sure I agree with what you said there," Vinik said. "The port plan is actually really well thought out. We've had conversations with them. If you look at the way the streets work and the parks work, it is a natural flow from our district into the port district...I'm not sure we're going to have 75 story residential towers five years from now. But a lot of respect for the designers, architects that worked on that. I know it's well thought out.”
More than once, he was asked about a controversial project, Tampa Bay Express (TBX) that will widen parts of I-275 with toll lanes, mowing down neighborhoods that stand in its way.
“I believe we have transportation challenges in this area,” he said, eliciting laughter from the room.
What he said next didn't go over well among those who want to see TBX stopped.
“I'm talking to a lot of companies, and the number one thought on their mind is, how do we move our employees around this area?” he said. “I think everything is on the table when you look at improving the horizontal flow of workers in this area, as well as visitors, as well as people who are living here and doing their shopping, et cetera. So I think everything is on the table.”
He later hinted that Tampanians should expect announcements to come forth soon regarding companies moving regional operations to the city.
The conversation often pivoted to the question of how to improve conditions for the city's impoverished African Americans.
Activist Michelle B. Patty asked about how inclusive the Channelside project will be.
“There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to African Americans receiving good-paying jobs,” she said.
The developer noted his group has arranged for a minimum ratio of minority businesses.
“With the real estate project we are committing to have, don't hold me to that number, 20 to 25 percent, something like that, of our contractors, subcontractors that we're working with for minorities," he said. "It's very important to us, it's very important to the Lightning.”
One of the tougher questions of the day came toward the event, when Laila Abdelaziz of the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused him of ignoring others' questions about TBX and criticized the project for catering to the lifestyles of well-to-do caucasians while ignoring minorities and low-income families, which could ultimately turn into a political problem for him.
“You're talking about yoga and streetcars, and that doesn't help low-income people in the city,” she said,.
Vinik said he didn't want to get into the politics of the project, and that if one is to look at the grand scheme, it's clear the development will benefit everyone, not to mention all of the charity work he and the Lightning do for the city, including a new large youth hockey program, among other things.
“We try to do our best, but if we were to wade into this too deeply, we would end up in this discussion too deep, and we would have people who would love us, people who would hate us. But it would take the focus off of what we're trying to do, which is lift the tide for everybody,” he said.